By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Meanwhile, the complaints against the fire ant had been taken up by America‘s rapidly expanding suburban communities. ”The amount of pesticide that’s sold against fire ants is just colossal,“ says Tschinkel (who eventually gave up on beetles and settled in at Florida State University, where he has researched Solenopsis invicta for the past 30 years). He‘s right. Allied Chemical, Dow Chemical, Thompson Hayward Chemical, Hi-Yield Chemical, American Cyanamid, Boyle Midway, Union Carbide and Chevron, just to name a few, have made killing the fire ant big business. ”You can see it in every hardware store,“ Tschinkel adds, ”in every garden store, stacks and stacks of the stuff. And in my opinion, 95 percent of it’s a total waste. But it does make money change hands. I suppose if you came up with a way to truly eradicate the fire ant from the United States, you‘d have a considerable constituency for not doing so.“
It’s not all that surprising that the notion of eradicating the fire ant has been resurrected in California. For the past 100 years, as agriculture has expanded, the state has been frantically hunting pests. The white garden snail, the obscure snail, the Mexican bean beetle, the Mexican fruit fly, the wheat stem sawfly, the fruit melon fly, the Kaphra beetle, the Japanese beetle, the medfly, the gypsy moth, the Oriental fruit fly, the Africanized honey bee, the apple maggot . . . Most recently, the state has been tracking a moth called the citrus leafminer, and a small locustlike nuisance known as the glassy-winged sharpshooter, which sucks water out of grapevines and has reportedly caused $33 million in damage in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties.
During the past eight years, California‘s interstate border stations have intercepted more than 1,300 incoming shipments containing hitchhiking fire ants. But the ant was not considered a pest in the state until October 1998, when a small colony was noticed in a load of red fountain grass shipped from the T-Y Nursery in Orange County, just south of Los Angeles. By January 2000, representatives from the Agriculture Department had distributed more than 73,000 information leaflets in three different languages; spoken to 53 separate schools, businesses and citizen groups; organized 24 fire-ant displays around the state; and given five formal interviews to the media. During the same 14-month period, an (800) fire-ant hot line had received 3,163 calls.
The nerve center of the Agriculture Department’s campaign is a square one-story building in the parking lot of the Orange County Fairgrounds. The walls of this makeshift headquarters are covered with maps of the surrounding area divided into square-mile grids. When the battle began, department agents went door to door in each grid. They inspected the cracks and crevices of every lot. As the survey progressed, they placed red dots on the maps to represent infested areas. They also asked homeowners to toss potato chips into their back yards and collect any ants that showed up, then send them through the mail to Sacramento for analysis. Before long, more than 30 cities in Orange County bore the measleslike marks on the maps. And the bad news kept coming. By the end of 1999, fire ants had been found in Los Angeles County, Riverside County and points as far north as Fresno, and as far east as Palm Springs. (The most recent statistics show Orange County with 1,600 fire-ant mounds and $5.9 million earmarked to fight them, L.A. County with 193 mounds and a $627,000 budget, and Riverside County with 81 mounds and a $1.5 million budget.)
All or part of each infested county is currently under USDA quarantine, which means that any shipment of dirt that enters or leaves the area has to be inspected by a representative of the county‘s agriculture commissioner. Each nursery in the quarantined area, whether infested or not, is required to treat all of its soil with the fire-ant insecticides Dursban and Talstar. There are no official figures quantifying the toll of these quarantines on Southern California’s billion-dollar nursery industry, but Bob Falconer, a lobbyist for the California Association of Nurserymen, insists that millions of dollars are spent each year by nurseries to protect themselves from fire-ant infestation. ”Clearly the nursery industry is the hardest hit by this infestation,“ Falconer says. ”We certainly have a lot more to gain or lose than anyone else.“
Though the federal government no longer pursues eradication as a national policy, the quarantines remain in place until the fire ant is completely extirpated from a given area. Aware of the scale of that task (to say nothing of the political opportunities it may have offered), state Senator John Lewis from Orange County sponsored a bill in 1999 that allocated $9.5 million for the Agriculture a Department to create a fire-ant ”action plan.“ It made ”proclamations of eradication“ for 569 square miles of Orange County, 45 square miles of Los Angeles County and 175 square miles of Riverside County. The Legislature, according to the bill, ”hereby finds and declares that the red imported fire ant is known for its aggressive behavior and venomous bite, and can interfere with outdoor activities, and threaten people as well as animals and agriculture.“ Falconer and more than a dozen nurseries lobbied for the legislation. No opposition was registered, and not a single vote was cast against it. Governor Gray Davis amended the bill before signing it, but the program still received close to $10 million from the state.
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